Siamese Coup d’État of 1932: From Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy

The year 1932 marked a turning point in the history of Thailand. Faced with a failing economy, a reduced military budget, and cuts to civil service payrolls, a group of foreign-educated civilians and military leaders secretly began plotting the overthrow of the ruling princes of the Supreme Council. These princes practiced nepotism and greedily hoarded their personal wealth. In an attempt to ease the economic tension, King Prajadhipok proposed the levying of income taxes and property taxes but the Supreme Council opposed these policies, fearing that their personal fortunes would suffer. They instead made cuts to civil service and military spending, causing the Minister of Defense Prince Boworadet to resign, and angering civilians. The king himself was of a passive nature and allowed the Supreme Council to overrule him. He admitted his lack of financial acumen and publicly apologized for his failings:

“I myself do not profess to know much about the matter… if I have made a mistake I really deserve to be excused by the officials and people of Siam.”

In April of that year, Bangkok celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rama I founded the capital in 1782, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Legend tells how Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To honour the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the king had commissioned the building of a bridge to span the Chao Phraya River and a large statue of Rama I, which was sculpted by the resident Italian artist, Corrado Feroci. King Prajadhipok had promised to reveal his planned constitution during these celebrations. When the sesquicentennial passed without mention of a constitution, the People’s Party began to foment revolution.

Rama I statue

Rama I statue

Sesquicentennial celebrations

Four senior army officers joined the Promoters after sensing the growing vibe of discontent among many of Siam’s young officers and civil servants. Chief among them was Phraya Songsuradet, who became the main tactician in plotting the coup and advised the Promoters to be more secretive to avoid official detection. The coup organizers held clandestine meetings in dimly-lit boardrooms to plan the overthrow of the ruling elites. Despite their precautions, word of the coup eventually leaked to the police. On the evening of June 23, 1932, the Director General of the Police made a phone call to Prince Paribatra – who was acting Prince Regent while the king was away at his seaside resort in Hua Hin – asking him for authorization to arrest the coordinators of the coup. The prince, recognizing many of the names on the list of conspirators, decided to delay the order until the next morning, a delay that would cost him bitterly.

In the early hours of June 24, 1932, civilian and military members of the People’s Party began to gather on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.  A gunboat sailed up the Chao Phraya River and was positioned facing the residence of Prince Paribatra. Naval units arrived on the scene under false orders to suppress a Chinese uprising. Many of those gathered there on that fateful morning were unaware of the intentions of the People’s Party and there was a general air of confusion. Military units secured all strategic locations and the princes of the Supreme Council were arrested and imprisoned in the Throne Hall. Prince Paribatra was reputedly in his pyjamas when armed soldiers came to take him away; he was given no time to change his clothes. It was well known that Paribatra had strongly opposed the constitution and wished to put himself or his son on the throne in place of King Prajadhipok. Only one of the princes managed to avoid arrest. Prince Purachatra had been away at the Turkish baths in downtown Bangkok when a faithful servant came to warn him of the uprising. He escaped from Bangkok by train and disembarked in Hua Hin, where he informed King Prajadhipok of the state of affairs back in the capital.

troops on the street after the coup

Troops on the street after the coup

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

When a large crowd had gathered on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a speech was given by Phraya Manopakon (Mano) which strongly criticised the king and the ruling elites. The speech was written by Pridi Phanomyong, a French-educated radical who played a key role in organizing the coup d’état. Mano, standing on a podium on the pavilion of the Throne hall, read out the Manifesto of the People’s Party. In it, the king was accused of embezzling funds, nepotism and governing without principle. In the speech, the People’s Party invited the king to retain his position, but under a constitution which would strip him of all his theoretical powers. The king was given an ultimatum: if he did not reply, it would be taken as treason and the country would adopt a republican form of government. All this was broadcast over radio and supporters of the movement blanketed the capital with flyers and pamphlets. Despite the rousing speech, many of the onlookers remained noncommittal and waited to see the reaction of the forces that were being ousted.

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Peoples Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

People's Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Meanwhile, King Prajadhipok was at his seaside palace, Klai Kangwon, teeing off a game of golf when Prince Purachatra came charging onto the scene talking of revolution in the capital. The king took the news with aplomb and asked his wife, Queen Rambai Barni, to finish the game of golf while he went indoors to discuss the matter with Purachatra. Also staying with the king was Prince Svasti, Queen Rambai Barni’s charismatic father, who was well known for his wit and charm. The group nervously listened to the strongly-worded radio broadcast of the People’s Party and considered what course of action to take. At first, the possibility of fleeing the country was broached but when the king turned to his wife for a final answer, she decided the most honourable thing to do would be to return and face the music. Later in the day, they received a telegram from the People’s Party which contradicted the terms set forth in their Manifesto. In the telegram, they assured King Prajadhipok that if he did not want to remain on the throne, they would be happy to replace him with another prince. Soon after, a gunboat was dispatched to Hua Hin and the commander of the vessel went ashore to ask the King to return with him to Bangkok. He refused to board the gunboat and went instead by royal train.

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and his entourage arrived in Bangkok late the next night and were met by a police guard who served as escort to the group. No military display was permitted at the Bangkok station and the People’s Party kept a respectful distance. Early the next morning, the king expressed his wish to meet with the leaders of the coup. Four members of the People’s Party were escorted to a room in King Prajadhipok’s palace where he was sitting behind a broad desk. He smiled and rose to greet them. “I rise,” he said, “in honour of the People’s Party.” In a country where civilians had once been obliged to prostrate themselves in the presence of the king, this significant moment was seen as a clear sign of King Prajadhipok’s willingness to agree to the terms of the People’s Party Manifesto. On June 27, 1932, King Prajadhipok signed the draft constitution, which stripped him of all his ancient powers. All the princes held captive were then released, all except Prince Paribatra, who was exiled to Germany for fear that he might stage a counter coup.

By the end of November of that year, the new government had drafted up a Permanent Constitution and it was formally signed by King Prajadhipok on December 10, 1932, thus ending 150 years of absolute monarchy.

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

The constitution

The constitution

To see more pictures from the 1932 coup d’état, visit my image blog, Siamese Visions.

The Not-So-Democratic Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:

“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”

In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy - Democracy Monument

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy

The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.

Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.

Democracy  Monument in every day life

Democracy Monument in every day life

See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.

Silpa Bhirasi: The man who sculpted the “Greats”

Silpha Bhirasi - The Italian sculptor who became a Thai citizen

The Thais are not especially well-known for honouring foreigners throughout their history and even today, the humble farang is made to feel like he is no more than a tolerated visitor. Of course, the same could be said of any country. It seems to be normal human behaviour to praise those who we feel most affiliated with; those who seem most like us. But the Thais, despite my opening statement, have shown amazing strength of character in honouring, tolerating and even “adopting” numerous foreigners as one of their own. One such person who the Thais owe a great debt to is Corrado Feroci.

Corrado Feroci - The sculptor who created some of Bangkok's most famous statues

Corrado Feroci was an Italian-born sculptor who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence from 1908 to 1915. He graduated with a 1st class honours and earned the title of Professor of Fine Arts. He was invited to Thailand in 1923 to teach Western sculpture at the Department of Fine Arts after Rama VI contacted the Italian government asking for a sculptor who could train Thai artists and craftsmen. Rama VI, who was quite a talented and artistic man himself, probably aspired to raise the standard of Thai art to that of international standards.

In 1929, Rama VI’s successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) commissioned the construction of a bridge that would span the Chao Phraya River. The Bridge was called Phra Buddha Yodfa Bridge (Memorial Bridge) and was built to mark the 150th anniversary of Bangkok. Rama VII ordered a large statue of Rama I to be built and placed on the pavilion at the foot of Memorial Bridge. The statue was designed by Prince Naris, president of the Royal Institute and director of the Department of Fine Arts, and the work of sculpting the statue was given to Feroci. In 1930, Feroci returned to his native Italy to supervise the moulding of the statue of Rama I. In 1932, Memorial Bridge was officially opened and the statue of Rama I was unveiled to the public. The king conferred the most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, 5th Class, upon Feroci for his work on the statue.

Rama I statue at Memorial Bridge

In the same year as the unveiling of the magnificent Rama I statue, Feroci cooperated with Phra Saroj Ratana Nimman, Head of Architecture Department, and established the School of Arts. In his first class, he had only seven students, many of whom went on to become famous artists. In 1942, the school was renamed the School of Fine Art and in 1943 became Silpakorn University, which is the name it still goes by today. He was a devoted teacher and expended large amounts of energy in transferring his knowledge to his students. He also wrote many books and research articles on both Thai and Western art such as: Theory of Colour (1943), Theory of Composition (1944), Thai Painting (1952) and An Appreciation of Sukhothai Art (1962). He was greatly loved and admired by his students and two years after his death, one of his students sculpted a statue of him, which still stands in the Faculty of Painting.

Silpa Bhirasi statue in Silpakorn University

In 1944, Corrado Feroci changed his name to Silpa Bhirasi and became a Thai citizen to avoid arrest by the occupying Japanese forces. He fell in love with Thailand and he made it his home for thirty-nine years. However, the long years abroad put a strain on his marriage to his Italian wife, Paola Angelini, and they separated amicably in 1949. He later married Malini, one of his students, and they lived happily together until the end of his life in 1962. In a final letter to Malini, his modest personality is revealed:

My dear Malini,

In case of my death, I wish to be cremated, but without any religious ceremony. I thank you with my soul for the many years of your affection which has verified the last part of my life. My best thought is to wish you a serene happiness reminding you always our long discussions about the complex difficulties of our life, particularly with regard [to] women. Please write to Romano and ask him to inform also Isabella & Dino of my passing away without regrets because I feel to have spent my life for something useful as a very modest servant of my art. Send them my love and my wishes for their prosperity and happiness. If the spirits have power to protect and bless the living ones, I will do [that] for you and this is my last hope.[1]

Among Feroci’s other works are some of Bangkok’s finest monuments. He sculpted many of the “Great” kings including: Rama VI, King Taksin and King Naresuan. He also executed the relief sculptures around the base of Democracy Monument. Because of his extraordinary legacy to the Thai people and Thai art scene, Corado Feroci has been dubbed “the father of modern Thai art.” In remembrance of this remarkable artist, September 15 – his birthday – is observed as Silpa Bhirasi Day. The Silpa Bhirasi Memorial Museum commemorates his life and is located in Silpakorn University. The museum includes nostalgic memorabilia such as paintings, sculptures, medals, old uniforms, a diary and an old camera. If you’re looking for somewhere a little different this coming Visaka Bucha Day, the museum is well worth a visit.

Democracy Monument

[1] Special Note : Professor Silpa Bhirasri’s Life and Works – Maneepin Phromsuthirak